Mesa County jobless rate surges along with unemployment claims

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Curtis Englehart

The monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County has surged to its highest level in nearly four years as closures and stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus affect local businesses.

Given the growing number of claims for unemployment benefits, the jobless rate could hit double digits in April, said Curtis Englehart, executive director of the Mesa County Workforce
Center in Grand Junction. “I expect these numbers to get a lot worse before they get better.”

For March, the seasonally unadjusted jobless rate increased 2.2 points to 6.3 percent, according to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

That’s the highest level since the rate hit 6.6 percent in June 2016, Englehart said. At this time last year, the rate stood at 3.9 percent.

For March 2020, Mesa County payrolls decreased 2,625 to 70,955. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work increased 1,599 to 4,765. The labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed contracted 1,026 to 75,720.

Compared to March 2019, payrolls have decreased 2,623 even as the ranks of the unemployed have increased 1,780. The labor force has shrunk 843.

Labor demand as measured by the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center has decreased. Englehart said 586 job orders were posted in March, down nearly 11.5 percent from the same month last year. The 1,436 job orders posted during the first quarter were down 20.3 percent from the same span last year.

Initial claims for unemployment insurance have surged, Englehart said, particularly by people who’ve lost jobs at restaurants and businesses dependent on tourism.

Claims in Mesa County grew from 42 for the week ending March 7 to 95 for the week ending March 14 to 463 for the week ending March 21 to 2,288 for the week ending March 28.

County level numbers aren’t yet available for April. But the state labor department reported 104,217 initial unemployment claims were filed statewide for the week ending April 11. Over the past four weeks, 231,610 claims were filed.

Englehart said the situation reminds him of the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009 with rising unemployment rates and a shrinking labor force.

The situation is different, though, because closures and stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of the corona virus have shuttered some businesses and limited operations for others.

The workforce center has physically closed, but staff working remotely continues to respond to increasing call volume from people asking questions and requesting services, Englehart said. Employees and employers can call 248-7560 to schedule interviews with employment specialists and case managers. A hotline at 248-7575  lists job openings in Mesa County on a daily basis. Employees and employers also can set up or reactive accounts online at  www.connectingcolorado.com, a state website connecting people looking for jobs and businesses recruiting new hires.

Seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates also increased in neighboring Western Colorado counties in March — up 3.2 points to 6.8 percent in Montrose County, up 2.9 points to 7.1 percent in Delta County and 6.6 percent in Rio Blanco County and 2.1 points to 5.4 percent in Garfield County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted jobless rate rose two points to 4.5 percent. The increase took the rate in one month from the lowest level in Colorado for statistics going back to 1976 to the highest level since August 2015. At this time last year, the rate stood at 3 percent

Nonfarm payrolls decreased 3,900 from February to March with the biggest losses in the professional and business services, education and health services and leisure and hospitality sectors. Compared to a year ago, payrolls remain up 43,900.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls lengthened eight-tenths of an hour to 33.4 hours over the past year. Average hourly earnings increased 68 cents to $30.94.